Like a cat and its hairball, the education establishment spits out slogans that always sound good, but don’t really mean anything. Even words that were very meaningful in other contexts become mind-numbing under the deadening hand of education reform. Some of the most common buzz words to be on the lookout for are:
- Teacher as “facilitator”
- “Active learners”
- “Passive learners”
- “Unit studies”
- “Best practices”
- “Twenty-First Century Learning”
- “Drill in kill”
- “Learning styles”
- “Multiple Intelligences”
- “Child-centered learning”
- “Learning centers” or just “centers”
- “Critical thinking skills”
Let’s take a look at the current hot buzz word today thanks to the proponents of the Common Core Standards Initiatives (CCSS). At some point in time, the term “critical thinking skills” use to mean something, but today it has been hijacked by education reformers and redefined as an umbrella term for “twenty-first century learning.”
When those promoting education reforms invoke the term “critical thinking skills,” you can count on one thing: They have no idea what they mean by these words. I find it interesting that people who say they want to improve our schools spend so much time talking about “critical thinking skills” and so little about logic. I believe one of the reasons is that the word “logic” is much more concrete. It implies a system of rational rules that can be taught, what the ancients called “art.” Logic isn’t as fluid as the term “critical thinking skills.” In addition, for propaganda purposes, it is less useful to use exact words such as logic. Vague words with indeterminate meanings are much more preferred with today’s reformers.
“Critical thinking skills” is a term used in a number of different disciplines, but no one has a clue as to what it means. But it sounds good, which is why education reformers use it. Much like when you hear them say something as “best interest of the child/student.” It sounds good and who would not want to get behind such an idea. The problem is that it is meaningless. You cannot have something that is “in the best interest of the child” because no one child is the same. What is best for one is not best for the next; in fact, it might be the worse. The next time you hear someone from the education establishment starts yapping about thinking skills, ask him or her to define it. Ask them to give you an example of thinking skills program they would recommend. See what you get.
To accurately evaluate anything, basic knowledge must precede critical thinking. The progressive reformers have always downplayed basic factual knowledge especially if knowledge is gleaned from the process that is a disease to the progressives: memorization. They typically demonize memorization as “drill and kill.” This is clearly seen in the rhetoric supporting CCSS.
Real thinking skills are summed up in one word: Logic. One could even answer with two words: Liberal Arts. If two words aren’t enough for you, then use seven: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The liberal arts are made up of two parts, the trivium, and the quadrivium, both are a kind of thinking skill. The trivium teaches and students demonstrate, qualitative and linguistic thinking skills and the quadrivium teaches, and students demonstrate, quantitative and mathematical thinking skills. When it all boils down, it is only the classical educator who has a real critical thinking skills program.
So why can’t modern educators have a real concept of critical thinking skills and knowledge? First, they have rejected the classical liberal arts, as opposed to today’s Marxist liberal arts found in public and many “Christian” colleges and universities. Second, modern educational philosophy no longer accepts the reality of objective knowledge that is why they rejected the classical liberal arts. It is because of this rejection of knowledge they no longer can educate. When there is not objective knowledge, there can be no critical thinking skill.
Our civilization was built upon the Christian and Aristotelian concept of knowledge as real and objective, but according to Immanuel Kant, all knowledge is subjective, not just values and morals. Each individual creates his own meaning, lives in his own world. John Dewey held to this belief completely. This is the reason why it is the process of learning that is important, not the content, which is why educators emphasize learning by experience. This is why children are asked to “construct meaning” rather than “read and comprehend.” Does this sound familiar to you? It should if you have been paying attention to the Common Core debate. Doesn’t this explain why the modern reform efforts have produced nothing but failure?
Isaac Moffett is the host of The Great Education Struggle podcast and author of The Great Education Decision: Learning From The Past to Give Our Children an Eternal Future.